Thursday, March 13, 2008

Lenten Sermon: The Cross and the Peculiar Office of the Church

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Dear Redeemed in Christ:
The Christian Church can do a lot of really good things: help people with their loneliness, give parents a place to educate their children, keep teenagers off the streets on Sunday mornings, organize family camping trips, teach people how to sing or play a musical instrument, offer a basketball court to the neighborhood kids, and enjoy potlucks and sauerkraut and jell-o — and dessert.
But what makes a Church that calls itself "Christian" the one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church is something very peculiar — something very uncommon — something very strange, unexpected and, to more than a few, something very unsettling.
That isn't pointing out to the world our holy living and it's moral failings.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church is not that we have some pope or an archbishop or a synodical or district president.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church is not that we have a great sanctuary that will take your breath away or a hand-carved altar imported from the Black Forest.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church is not the presence of expensive paraments draped over pulpit or lectern or altar or pastor.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church cannot be discerned in silver-plated chalices or gold-plated offering plates.
The peculiar thing about the true Christian Church is "peculiar" because it is something that God has called only his Church to be and to do. Not the psychologist, not the politician, not the welfare agency, not the hospital or the school or university or athletic club.
And, contrary to popular thought, this peculiar "office" is not found among the clutter of the pastor's study. It is not the kind of office with a door, desk, phone and stapler. It is a peculiar role, calling, duty, responsibility, command given only to the Church by the Lord and Ruler of the Church: Christ himself.
And to properly understand that special calling, we turn to two special passages of Scripture: Matthew 16 and John 20.
Now if you attended the Bible studies on the Gospel of Matthew several weeks ago you might remember that Matthew 16:13-20 is the culmination of the entire three year ministry of Jesus with his disciples, a three year ministry of Jesus preaching faith into the disciples, and the resulting fruit of faith as Jesus' asks the Twelve: "But who do you (plural) — you all — say that I am?" Hear what the disciples confess through their spokesman, the first among equals: Peter. (Read Matthew 16:16-19.)

Only upon this confession of faith — a confession of faith that faithfully reflects what God himself has revealed about his Son through his Word and Spirit — will Christ build his Church.
But what a peculiar Church it will be: a Church under Christ exercising it's peculiar calling to bind and release one specific thing: sin.
This is what so much of what calls itself Christian today has forgotten or neglected or disdained as it trumpets it's own ability to release people from a spirit of low self-esteem or a demon of arthritis or the bonds of financial insecurity or the burden of a seemingly unfulfilling marriage.
The forgiveness of sins — real, unconditional, free, no-strings-attached forgiveness of sins — is the peculiar mark of the true Christian Church because only the true Christian Church has been given the call and authority to use the God-given keys that unlock and open — and close and bolt shut — the gates of heaven.
That is why we confess in the Creed that we believe in "the forgiveness of sins" when we talk about the saving work of the Holy Spirit as he creates and sustains the Church of Christ.
No Holy Spirit, no true Christian Church. No true Christian Church, no office of the keys. No office of the keys, no forgiveness of sins. No forgiveness of sins, no chance of heaven for hopeless sinners.
Now maybe some days we aren't all that convinced that the freeing and binding of people and their sins is all that peculiar or special or essential when it comes to the Christian Church. Why else would millions and millions of people walk away from congregations who spotlight the office of the keys in order to join a church that never mentions forgiveness, let alone that little three-letter word "sin"?
For anyone wondering if the office of the keys is a big deal to Christ and should be a big deal to the Church and to each of us as Christians, take a good hard look at John 20 and re-discover the first things Jesus had on his mind as he greets the Twelve (minus Judas and Thomas) on that first Easter Sunday. (Read John 20:19-23.)
The gracious gift of the crucified and risen Christ brings the gift of the peace his Cross secured. The gift of the redeeming presence of Christ brings the gift of the Holy Spirit and the call to be the body of Christ as he — through his Church and his pastors — forgives those who in faith confess their sins and look to Christ alone for their forgiveness — and retains the sins of those who will not lay their sins before the crucified Savior.
Now on some days we might think that the Church can't be the Church if the electricity goes out or the water main breaks or someone forgot to brew the coffee and pick up the donuts. But this afternoon / tonight God gathers us to again remind us that the true Christian Church can actually survive very well without all the conveniences that we've somehow made into necessities.
There is one thing that robs the Christian Church of its peculiarity, its uniqueness, its calling and duty and responsibility and obligation — and gracious privilege — as the Body of Christ: the absence of the exercise of the office of the keys, the releasing and binding, the locking and unlocking, the forgiving and retaining of sin.
Listen to me closely. Christ has not called the Church to make the world admire her or obey her or behave like her.
When it comes to everything outside of Christ and his body, the Church, the only authority any congregation is called to exercise is the authority to forgive the sins of those who look to Christ as their gracious Redeemer and Substitute.
Martin Luther, preaching on John 20:19-31, admonishes us when he says, "Christ's mandate to his disciples was not to have secular authority, but to preach the Gospel and to have authority over sins. Christ himself defined the commission and the authority: preach the Gospel, and remit and retain sins. The power of the apostolic keys, first and foremost, is to preach the Gospel of Christ, to bind and to loose sins." (Klug. Sermons of Martin Luther: The House Postils. 2:62.)
Well, O.K., the Church may do many things pretty well, but there's one peculiar thing it has been called to carry out: announce forgiveness to those who look to Christ with repentant hearts. — But what does all of this have to do with having our faith strengthened and our hope and comfort in Christ and his grace deepened?
Let's take another look at the Small Catechism, as it shows what Scripture reveals about "the Office of the Ministry."

What do you believe according to these words (John 20:22-23)?
I believe that, when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by his divine command, especially when they exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation, and again, when they absolve those who repent of their sins and are willing to amend, this is as valid and certain, in heaven also, as if Christ, our dear Lord, dealt with us himself.

Yes, there is the stern warning that those who are not repentant, those who will not look to Christ and his work upon the Cross for their deliverance will in no way have their sins forgiven. The Church is called to uphold that truth and prevent it from being watered down or put into the storage shed out back.
But for those who are hear today struggling with a sinful act or an impure thought or a word said that seems too great for even the Church to forgive — I say to you: Christ has given his life, lovingly, for all of your sins and for the sins of the entire world. He has taken upon himself on the Cross the weight of your sin. The sin that terrifies you and gnaws at you and binds itself to you has been — through your baptism — dragged to the Cross of Christ to be forever buried in his tomb.
And the same Christ who forgave his disciples for their unforgivable unbelief and doubt and cowardice and sent his Church out to preach the Cross and forgive the penitent who put their faith in it — that same Christ forgives you and gives you his saving peace as you hear the pastor declare, "Upon this, your confession, ... I forgive you all your sins."
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen